Privilege and the Personal-Political in Writing

In this second part of Science Fiction and the Personal-Political, we begin with the influence of privilege on our perceptions of literature. My ever-handy dictionary defines privilege as “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.” Positions of privilege allow some readers to imagine such a thing as non-political or apolitical writing, perhaps especially in fiction. Ignorantly or willfully, privilege offers the power to ignore social subtexts. It is possible, too, that blindness to subtexts can also lie with the oppressed—a different issue, and an understandable one, stemming from persistently imposed narratives about one’s own race, gender, or background. Our focus here will be on the former, it being the primary cause of the latter.

For example, one might enjoy Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as an intelligent, witty tale of tangled romance, a prototype for all romances since, whose enduring theme has always been love conquers all. 

Pride and Prejudice tells of the fraught but inevitable courtship between Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet—to this day, still sentimental beach reading—but its more important subtexts swim just beneath the surface, a shark out in the literary surf. Pride and Prejudice is, far more importantly, a damning commentary on the socioeconomic oppression of women, certainly during Austen’s time, and by extension today. A stricter reading tells us not only that love does not conquer all, but that love is a poor substitute for emancipation and personal empowerment.

The book’s plot rests on the legal realities of nineteenth-century England and the entailing of property, which Austen emphasized as well in Sense and Sensibility. Mr. Benet’s daughters could not inherit, not even if he desired. If unmarried at his death, Elizabeth and her four sisters would become destitute, homeless, and anathema. The story’s courtship, proposals, and romance occur not with entailing as the backdrop, but solely because of it. The romantic misadventures overlay a tapestry of insurmountable legal constraint, oppression, and sexual politics. The personal narrative of Pride and Prejudice contains an outcry for public reform which, once perceived, dominates it.

Without the constraints of entailing, imagine the plot: Darcy is irrelevant by chapter nine. Lizzy bides her time and, after inheriting a fortune, the smart, capable, witty woman could have leveraged her own means and done anything she liked—man optional—using her astute skills of social observation to work the markets of an industrializing England. I’d buy that story.

Pride and Prejudice was a cry for women’s agency a century before suffrage. So much for “sentimental beach reading.”

The romantics and gothics wrote narratives ripe with sociopolitical subtext. In Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, the character of Catherine Earnshaw withers (wuthers?), her true nature crushed by sociocultural pressure. Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of the most complex stories ever told, multilayered and the forerunner of modern science fiction—as famous for its rejection of nineteenth-century social norms as for its visionary speculations. Stoker’s Dracula brims with commentary about emerging industrialism, empowered femininity, homosexuality, and capitalism—all impossible for Stoker to express publicly, in his era, without the mask of fiction. These were never mere entertainments, fluffy stories of tragic romance, mad scientists, and creatures of the night.

These were powerful personal-political statements.

Similarly, the great works of modernist literature emerged from personal-political themes. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, or Nabokov; Woolf, Mansfield, or Stein—none were ever anything but political in their themes, whether overtly or in terms of personal identity. Moreover, their politics could be complex and difficult to pigeonhole.1 We should be reminded today, in our era of polarized politics, that political thinking can and perhaps should be viewed through more nuanced lenses.

What good are writers if they can’t parse nuance?2

The personal-political quality of contemporary fiction is no less present or powerful than it was for the romantics or the modernists. Sometimes graceful (re: Ondaatje),3 sometimes clumsy (re: Franzen),4 today’s literature is perhaps more concerned with identity politics and domesticity than were its forebears, but perhaps not; identity politics has been the politics of the last century, first blindingly white and now increasingly rainbow. (Do identity politics actually belong to a more complete schema called civil rights?) Identity politics today are emblematic of contemporary literature, underscoring literature’s unavoidably political nature.5

Still, I can hear the affirmed escapists asking, “But what about the real beach reading? What about books that are just for fun?”

The mainstream fiction? Today’s romances? Can’t we just have a frivolous read, without all the weighty and responsible thematics?

Sorry, no. We may read any story for escapism, but we must disable our inner critic if we’re to pretend it’s apolitical.

Does any given bodice-ripper6 reinforce or challenge mores of sex, gender, and race? Does it exclude the disempowered or promote cultural diversity, repeating tropes comforting to WASPy readers in suburban America but disempowering to urban women, minorities, or even men? Does it reinforce stalking behavior and patterns of abuse in relationships7—never mind Fifty Shades of Grey?8 Embedded in the genre is the need to resolve on the upbeat—love always triumphs—which often necessitates glossing over or stopping short of any darker undertones.

Before I’m accused of unfairly needling a genre outside my own, I refer you to Jackie C. Horne’s excellent discussion of the romance genre and politics following the 2016 Presidential election.9 Truly, we are capable of ignoring personal-political themes in any writing only when they are so familiar to us as to be invisible.

What about whodunits and mysteries?

Notice the preponderance of youthful, well-to-do, attractive, white women-as-victims in twentieth- and twenty-first-century thrillers? The detectives leap to help them or to uncover their murderers, no matter the costs. But black women, old women, disfigured women, cat ladies?

Young, beautiful, white women are simply too valuable a commodity, and psycho-killers can’t be allowed to run about, willy-nilly, murdering them. Everyone else, though? Well, we’ll get to those murders if we have the time—

“Missing white-woman syndrome” exists in literature as much as it does in real life.10 But does fiction reflect life, or life reflect fiction?11

Even in science fiction, we have The Expanse12—Detective Miller has seen a lot of bad shit go down, out there on Ceres, but wow does he go out of his way for a young, rich, and beautiful Claire Mao. The future, it appears, will not be much different than the present. But at least Mao isn’t white—progress!

The point here is this: Writers often reinforce society’s existing narratives, even when they enjoy more license than most to alter the narrative. “Ils doivent envisager qu’une grande responsabilité est la suite inséparable d’un grand pouvoir.”—They must consider that great responsibility follows inseparably from great power.13

Why? Here’s the truth—consciously political fiction can be excellent fiction, despite unfounded rumors to the contrary.

In mainstream fiction, politics abound. Toward the end of his life, Michael Crichton became overtly rightwing, but political themes run throughout his many novels, including the early works, the ones before he started writing “message fiction.” Stephen King, these days vocally leftwing, infused even his early books with underlying personal-political messages—all to excellent effect. J.K. Rowling, Danielle Steele, Jackie Collins, Dean Koontz, Paulo Coelho, James Patterson, C.S. Lewis, Clive Cussler, Anne Rice, Ian Fleming, or Tom Clancy—each has written through a lens which reinforced or challenged existing power structures, and each text may be reinterpreted today around personal-political themes. Each author also still counts among the best-selling of all time.

Despite this, in fiction writing—literary and genre, if indeed these are separate pursuits—the word political often draws disdain, as if entertainment must necessarily be apolitical. As if it can be. If our grocery lists can’t avoid the political, what hope does our fiction have?

Science Fiction and the Personal-Political (1 of 3)
Science Fiction and the Personal-Political (3 of 3)

Footnotes

  1. Will, Barbara. (2012). The Strange Politics of Gertrude Stein. Humanities, 33(2).
  2. Carroll. Berenice. (1978). “To Crush Him in Our Own Country”: The Political Thought of Virginia Woolf. Feminist Studies, 4(1). Even when the authors of yesteryear rejected the political natures of their own works, they works remained political—Woolf spurned political attributions, belying her own nature. Her view of her own work reinforces the rather powerful idea that, once stories and novels and other creative artifacts spread into the world, the author too becomes simply one more subjective reader of it.
  3. Ondaatje, Michael. (1992). The English Patient.
  4. Franzen, Jonathan. (2015). Purity.
  5. Volynets, Steven. (2015). The Literary Industrial Complex of Hating Jonathan Franzen. Observer, 5 Sept. <http://observer.com/2015/09/the-literary-industrial-complex-of-hating-jonathan-franzen/>
  6. I realize bodice-ripper has been more or less rejected by romance writers. Sorry, I’m using it anyway.
  7. McMillan, Graeme. (2009). Official: Twilight’s Bella & Edward Are In An Abusive Relationship. io9, 28 Nov. <http://io9.gizmodo.com/5413428/official-twilights-bella–edward-are-in-an-abusive-relationship>
  8. James, E.L. (2011). Fifty Shades of Grey.
  9. Horne, Jackie C. (2016). Romance Novels in the Wake of the U.S. Presidential Election. Romance Novels for Feminists, 11 Nov. <http://romancenovelsforfeminists.blogspot.com/2016/11/romance-novels-in-wake-of-us.html>
  10. See <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Missing_white_woman_syndrome>.
  11. Martin, Michel. (2014). Does Justice For Murder Victims Depend on Race, Geography? National Public Radio, 13 Jan. <http://www.npr.org/2014/01/13/262082861/does-justice-for-murder-victims-depend-on-race-geography>
  12. Corey, James S.A.; Abraham, Daniel & Franck, Ty. (2011). Leviathan Wakes.
  13. Sorry, Spider-Man fans. Those words first came from the French National Convention of 1793.